Blazin' Saddles

Tour de Farce: Crash, Boom, wallop – Hell of the North special

Blazin' Saddles

Stage five of the 2014 Tour de France will go down in history as one of the most dramatic the race has ever seen.

Here's a run through of an absolutely brutal day in - and primarily off - the saddle.

Unlike the British fans with their ghastly penchant for the selfie, the hardy French fans couldn't be blamed for their photobombing skills.

That didn't stop them being pulled into the narrative - with one elderly man in a red jacket sent flying into a ditch by a runaway Movistar rider.

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Even before the riders set out from Ypres the omens looked pretty bleak as torrential rain poured down from grey, unphlegmatic Flemish clouds.

Over the border in France things weren't much better - and this early tweet from the Tinkoff-Saxo camp reminded fans just why the cobbled roads on the bleak horizon give the one-day spring classic Paris-Roubaix the moniker, the Hell of the North.

Severe flooding had forced race organisers to cancel two of the scheduled nine cobbled sectors - but with defending champion Chris Froome nursing a wrist injury from a tumble in stage four, things did not look good for Team Sky.

As expected, fans were questioning Chris Fro— sorry, David Brailsford's - decision not to include 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins in Sky's squad, especially given Wiggo's strong top ten finish in Paris-Roubaix back in April.

Already smarting about the loss of sprinter Mark Cavendish, British fans' fears were first realised as early as 35km into the stage when Froome crashed on the wet roads as a nine-man group rode a couple of minutes ahead of the peloton.

Froome was quickly back on his bike - with just a small tear in his bib shorts. Funnily enough, his race number was also ripped off the back of his shirt in the fall - which did admittedly make things a little easier when he threw in the towel around an hour later (every cloud).

The British whippet was not the only rider to suffer on the hors d'oeuvre of slippery roads ahead of the crunchy cobbled main course. Marcel Kittel, he of three sprint wins so far, was brought crashing back to earth on a roundabout as the pace increased ahead of the first cobble sector.

Meanwhile, miles away and in hospital, Cavendish woke up following shoulder surgery just in time to watch the explosive second half to the stage.

Cav would have been happy to see his Omega Pharma team-mate Tony Martin in the break - less so when Big Tone hit the deck along with little Sammy Dumoulin with the spectre of cobbles looming.

It wasn't hard to see why so many of the riders were nervous - especially with the number of tweets that had been streaming through all morning showing the poor state of the already poor excuse for roads lying in wait. One of the Katusha team cars posted this picture of what the peloton had in store at the Gruson cobbled sector - the same stretch where Bernard Hinault once collided with a dog during the 1981 Paris-Roubaix, prompting the Frenchman to later call the race "bulls***" despite having recovered to win.

Froome clearly wasn't checking Twitter during his ride - that sore wrist would have made it tricky and fraught with risk - but he was clearly psychologically pummelled by the mere thought of bone-jarring pavé. When team-mate Vasil Kiryienka went down on a roundabout Froome managed to avoid the sprawling Belorussian. But it was just a matter of time before he too succumbed to the infernal pace and the wet roads.

This time it was one crash too many. Red in the face, a shivering, quivering wreck, Froome refused a new bike, shook his head and gestured towards the team car. There was no need to tear off his number in the haughty manner of Lance Armstrong quitting the Tour back in 1996 - for it had already been cheese-grated off by the road in the previous fall.

As Eurosport commentator Carlton Kirby told Sean Kelly: Froome didn't fall on the cobbles, but he fell because of the cobbles.

Not that there was an absence of cobble falling going on.

So Froome was out of the race by stage five though? Surely nobody could have seen that coming....cough...ahem....cough.

Once the race hit the first of seven sectors it took on whole new levels of mayhem. Just look at this carnage as Sep Vanmarcke ploughs through a ditch and is sprayed with dirty rainwater by one of the race motorbikes. How the Belgian stayed upright remains a mystery; perhaps that's why he - and not Alberto Contador - has finished on the podium in Paris-Roubaix before. For yes, this is where Contador started to struggle - the diminutive Spaniard feeling the unforgiving pinch of the pavé.

It was hell for everyone involved - but one absent friend was lamenting not being there. In a tweet that will scupper any chances of him ever moving to Team Sky, Taylor Phinney, at home recovering from a broken leg, issued a plea for making a foray into the cobbles an annual event for the Tour.

The drama then bordered on comedy as Lotto Belisol's Lars Bak rode off the road and performed a full somersault while still clipped into his pedals - just as Garmin's Andrew Talansky clattered into a spectator on the same bend. Exploiting the carnage, Belkin pair Vanmarck and Lars Boom rode clear.

On the front of the race, Vincenzo Nibali strengthened his grip on the yellow jersey as Belkin's Boom became the first Dutchman in nine years to the day to win a stage on the Tour de France. Certainly something worth celebrating with an obvious and catchy hashtag, don't you think?

Caked in mud, Contador came home more than two and a half minutes down on Nibali but remained chipper about his day - after all, he had not suffered the same fate as his co pre-race favourite Froome.

And on a day in which the majority of the peloton tasted tarmac and chomped the mud at least once, there was just the one withdrawal from the race: that of Froome. Still no doubt trying to distance himself from Sky and Froome following the recent storm over the 2013 winner's therapeutic use exemption for corticosteroids, UCI President Brian Cookson got in on the act of delighting in a stage of blunderbuss-tic proportions.

Once the dust had settled and Froome had regained feelings in his fingers, the sadly departed told fans how gutted he was to have been forced out of the race.

Given the fact that so many people had been critical of Sky's choice to enter the race with no apparent Plan B, it was hardly surprising when the comedy memes started to come thick and fast. The funniest - and perhaps harshest - being this gem...

But let's be honest... if there's one man you couldn't rely on in stressful and sodden conditions it's probably Bradley Wiggins, who would have either ridden clear of Froome when his team-mate first crashed, or would have succumbed to a similar fate on a slightly downhill stretch of cobble.

As Eurosport consultant Greg LeMond said: "It's tragic for Froome but I haven’t seen anything in the first days that would have made any difference if Wiggins was included in the team."

If you didn't click on any of the videos above and you've somehow managed to get this far, then here's a complication of the day's best crashes - best watched while tucked up in bed with a cup of warm cocoa.

Felix Lowe (on Twitter @Saddleblaze)

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